After two black women filed complaints about having their hair arbitrarily searched at airports, the Transportation Security Administration has agreed to begin anti-discrimination training for its agents.
The agreement comes after both Malaika Singleton and Novella Coleman said that their hair — which they wear in a type of dreadlock style — was arbitrarily searched.
Coleman told BuzzFeed News on Friday that TSA agents singled her out for hair searches three times several years ago. In one instance, she asked why her hair was being checked and was told that agents search hair that has extensions or "abnormalities."
"Just that phrase is stigmatizing in itself," Coleman said.
Coleman — a staff lawyer with the ACLU of Northern California — filed a complaint about the searches in 2012, but the TSA did not make policy changes at the time.
Then in late 2013, Singleton told BuzzFeed News that she experienced something similar. En route to London, she was stopped in LAX and had her hair searched. Then on the way back, she was stopped again for a hair search during a layover in Minneapolis.
"The first time I was shocked," she said. "I just did not expect that. I felt violated."
Singleton said she was wearing her hair in a style known as "sister locks," which creates numerous long strands that are sometimes mistaken for braids. Singleton added that she did not receive an explanation for the searches.
The TSA will begin anti-discrimination training at LAX in April, Coleman said.
According to Coleman, the TSA and the ACLU reached an agreement in January. The agreement will involve training designed to prevent black women from being singled out for hair searches.
The TSA confirmed the agreement to BuzzFeed News in an email Friday:
TSA reached an informal agreement with the ACLU to enhance officer training. Racial profiling is not tolerated by TSA. Not only is racial profiling prohibited under DHS and agency policy, but it is also an ineffective security tactic.
In a letter sent to Coleman and posted online by the ACLU, the TSA further explained that it will retrain officers to stress "race neutrality." The training will place "special emphasis on hair patdowns of African American female travelers" and will be designed to avoid discrimination.
The TSA's agreement with the ACLU also includes a promise to track hair pat-down complaints from black women to "assess whether a discriminatory impact may be occurring" at specific airports.
Claims that TSA agents discriminate against black women are not new, and include a high profile incident in 2012 when Solange Knowles said she had been profiled.
Other complaints about black women being targeted by TSA agents go back years.
On Friday, Coleman called the searches "an invasion of privacy" and "humiliating." She also criticized them as being up to individual agents, some of whom may be prompted by either overt or inadvertent racial biases.
"They're also misguided because they're not tailored to detect a threat to airport security," she said, adding that she was unaware of any cases in which hair was actually used to smuggle something into an airport.
Coleman plans to attend the the training sessions at LAX, and was optimistic that it would lead to improvement.
"I think right now we're in a hopeful place," she said.